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Threat of conspiracy theories limited

The risk that conspiracy theories could incite a broad movement against the established political order is virtually non-existent. This is what researcher Jelle van Buuren of the Institute of Security and Global Affairs concluded in his PhD dissertation.

More threats and acts of violence

Over the past decade, Dutch politicians and civil servants have increasingly been the target of threats and/or violent actions. These actions have often been undertaken by ‘lone wolves’: individuals who are not linked to terrorists or terrorist organisations. These individuals deny the political legitimacy of the government. Researcher Jelle van Buuren wanted to know what role conspiracy theories play in this 'de-legitimisation' process and to what extent conspiracy thinking encourages acts of violence.

Research into digital communities

Van Buuren therefore investigated various digital communities where conspiracy theories play a prominent role. He concludes that conspiracy thinking in modern, complex societies primarily serves as a substitute for an ideology or religion. A conspiracy serves up a clear 'us' vs 'them' division of society. Conspiracy theories also offer critical commentary on events, a commentary that is attractive to people who feel alienated from the political establishment or even ignored or betrayed by politics.

An outlet

Conspiracy theories incite aggressive, hostile discussions on social media and falsely portray society as a structure in which ‘the people’ are seen as an undivided, homogeneous group. Yet, the danger that conspiracy theories may form the basis for a wider political movement and emerge as a threat to national security is, according to Van Buuren, virtually nil. The theories are usually an outlet for people who feel powerless, desperate and resentful towards the government.

Jelle van Buuren was awarded his PhD on Wednesday, 2 November for his research project ‘Target The Hague - Lone Wolves and the Loss of Political Legitimacy’. He is a researcher at the Institute of Security and Global Affairs (in The Hague) of Leiden University. In this capacity, he often comments on terrorism and  national and international security in the media.

Political legitimacy

The research was funded by the Political Legitimacy research profile area of Leiden University and the National Cooordinator for Counter Terrorism and Security.

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